Students Awarded EPA Grant to Build Homes from Rice Husks

Eco-friendly, termite-resistant composite material developed by UCR students will be used to build inexpensive housing in the Philippines

A photo of some of the students who worked on the project.

The Husk-to-Home team that won the $75,000 EPA grant (left to right): Dennis Jones, Brandon Leu, Colin Eckerle, Jacqueline Ortega, Jose Corbala-Delgado, Brian Rojas-Lerena, and Kevin Li.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — A group of students from the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering has been awarded a $75,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to build housing in the Philippines using a termite-resistant composite material created from waste rice husks.

The team, called Husk-to-Home, received the grant as phase two winners in the EPA’s P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) Student Design Competition. The grant will enable them to build relief shelters and low-cost housing in the Bohol province, which is still recovering from a 2013 earthquake that was closely followed by a “super typhoon,” with sustained winds of 195 mph.  Husk-to-Home’s partner in the Philippines, the International Deaf Education Association (IDEA), is a non-profit that builds temporary homes and community facilities after natural disasters.

Colin Eckerle, an environmental engineering student who has been working on the project since 2014, said the two-year grant will pay for manufacturing equipment and space, allowing the team to begin full-scale production of the boards.

“Up to this point, much of the work we’ve done has focused on scientific research and testing small prototype boards. This grant will allow the real engineering to begin. It is exciting to think that in a year or two we could be constructing houses built from our material,” Eckerle said.

The UCR students were introduced to the husk-to-homes concept by a UCR alumnus’ father-in-law, whose brother worked at IDEA. Kawai Tam, an associate teaching professor in the Bourns College and a project advisor, encouraged the students to get involved, recognizing it as both an engineering challenge and service learning opportunity.

A photo of the composite material made from rice husks.

A sample of the eco-friendly, termite-resistant composite material made from waste rice husks that was developed by UCR students.

In their design, the rice husks—a waste product of rice milling—replace the woodchips used in conventional particleboard. Since they are inherently termite resistant, rice husks make a good alternative to the plywood, bamboo and coconut wood that is typically used to build relief shelters in the Philippines. To bind the boards together, the students first tested bio-based adhesives such as the milk protein casein and the plant derivative tannin, but the boards either lacked in strength or were susceptible to humidity. They eventually settled on recycled high density polyethylene (HDPE), another abundant waste product in the Philippines.

“While it has taken a lot of trial and error to get a material that is strong and consistent enough to build homes with, we have finally reached a point where we can produce a prototype board that is comparable in terms of strength to commercially available particleboard. Our tests have shown that termites will not eat rice husk or our building material, which will increase the lifespan of the houses in the Philippines,” Eckerle said.

Eckerle said the board will cost about $7 for a 4 ft. x 8 ft. board—the same as the plywood boards currently used by IDEA. “This is an advantage for our boards, as they will last much longer for a similar cost,” he said.

Since 2014, three different groups of students have contributed to the Husk-to-Home project: From May 2014 to June 2015, a team of chemical and environmental engineering students consisting of Eckerle, Jeniene Abugherir, Lamees Alkhamis, Joel Sanchez and Chris Yang led the project. The group was awarded a $15,000 EPA P3 phase one grant, as well as $5000 and the Intel Environmental Innovation Award at the ‘WERC: A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development’ competition run by the U.S. Institute for Energy & the Environment.

From June 2015 to June 2016, a second multidisciplinary team of engineering students was assembled. Eckerle, Jose Corbala-Delgado, Brandon Leu, Kevin Li, Jacqueline Ortega, and Brian Rojas-Lerena were joined by business administration student Dennis Jones. The team won numerous awards, including a first place Superior Sustainable Design Award at the EPA’s National Design Expo in Washington D.C., a second place award at the Big Ideas@Berkeley contest, a UCR Green Campus Action Plan grant, a first place award at the Metropolitan Water District’s Spring Green Expo/ Eco Innovators Showcase, and now the EPA P3 phase two award of $75,000.

The project is currently led by engineering undergraduates Barbara Aguirre, Mark Hsu, Ivan Dang, Riya Sanghvi, and Michael Pfaff together with business majors Akshay Gadkari and Keanu Valibia.

The advisors on the EPA P3 phase two award include Tam; Michael Rust, a distinguished professor in the Department of Entomology; and Suveen Mathaudhu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

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